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The 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 30, 2016

Listen to this homily (mp4 file)

     We’re quickly coming to the end of the Church’s year, which means that we will soon be moving to Matthew’s gospel.  Nothing against Matthew, but I have a particular fondness for Luke - for the powerful portrait he paints of the merciful, compassionate Christ.  We’ve been meeting that Christ all year long, including the past few Sundays. There was the parable of the prodigal son a few weeks ago, followed by the story of the healing of the leper, and then just last Sunday we had the story of the humble tax collector who stood at the back of the temple beating his breast and begging for God’s mercy.  And today, we get one more story of mercy and forgiveness in the person of Zacchaeus.

     Zacchaeus is a favorite of mine.  You probably won’t find it surprising that I relate to this fellow who wasn’t, well, very tall.  The only way he could get a glimpse of Jesus was to climb a tree!  I get that. Been there, done that! I’ve done my share of standing on tiptoe in crowds over the years. I think, for example, of those massive papal audience in St. Peter’s square when I’d have given anything for a sycamore tree just to get a glimpse of the Pope -- although I have to tell you that on my recent visit to Rome I got more than a glimpse of Pope Francis. I actually got to meet him, speak with him, shake his hand, and give him a hug. It was amazing!  I won’t bore you with details now but I’ll be more than happy to share them with you later. Just ask me!

     But back to Zacchaeus!  My fondness for Zacchaeus doesn’t stop at the fact that he was ‘vertically challenged,’ as we sometimes say.  I also like the fact that Zacchaeus was curious about Jesus or, in Luke’s words, that he was “seeking to see who Jesus was.”  Zacchaeus represents everyone one of us in that regard, wouldn’t you agree?  Is there any one of us who isn’t curious about Jesus?  Any one of us who of isn’t – in one way or another – “seeking to see who Jesus is?”  Isn’t that what our life of faith is all about?  We might not use those exact words but I think we’d agree that we long to get a good look at Jesus and to understand better who he is.

     And the Zacchaeus story tells us that this desire of ours to see and know Jesus is not one-sided.  Happily, it’s matched by the desire Jesus has to be with us.  We’re told in the story that, when Jesus reached the tree that Zacchaeus had climbed, he looked up, called him by name, and invited himself to dinner!  “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”  You see what I mean by Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus being matched Jesus’ desire to be with him!

     And what happens as a result is life-altering for Zacchaeus.  He’s a changed man because of his encounter with Jesus.  Wealthy Zacchaeus becomes an instant philanthropist, a veritable Bill Gates! “Behold, half of my possessions I shall give to the poor.” And, not only that -- the despised, dishonest tax collector vows to pay restitution and more. “If I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over!” 

     What’s not to like about that story?  It’s so encouraging to us.  Not so much because our story is the same as Zacchaeus’ story.  It’s probably not.  No, for me, the encouraging part is that our desire to see and to know Jesus is met by his desire to be with us.  And it’s encouraging to know that there’s nothing about our life – not our shaky past, our failings, our sins, our compromises – nothing at all gets in the way of Jesus’ desire to be with us. And, of course, when Jesus is with us, when he comes and stays ‘at our house’ as he did with Zacchaeus, our lives are completely changed, much like Zacchaeus’ was.

     If you think of it, the stories of many saints down through the ages parallel the story of Zacchaeus.  Every saint had some sort of conversion, of course, but some saints required more conversion than others. I think of St. Paul, for one, and St. Augustine, and St. Ignatius -- “saints with a past,” as one contemporary writer refers to them.  Which puts me in mind of something I once read, I can’t recall where: “There is no saint without a past and no sinner without a future.”  I like that, and it’s true!

     In more recent times, we might think of undeclared saints like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.  And you could no doubt add some saints of your own – parents or grandparents, maybe, or friends - who have been part of your lives.  Each of them, like Zacchaeus, wanted to see Jesus and had some kind of an encounter with Jesus, and their lives were never quite the same as a result!

     This week we will celebrate All Saints Day, one of my favorite feasts on the Church’s calendar. I always think of All Saints Day as celebrating, not so much the saints we make statues of or whom we honor with shrines, candles, flowers, and prayers. No, All Saints Day celebrates the saints who will never have a statue made of them, or a church named for them. It celebrates all the people down through the ages – including many we have known – who, like Zacchaeus, were transformed by their encounter with Jesus and who let Jesus be their companion and friend even when they wondered why he’d ever want to be.  Each one of them stumbled and fell along the way, but they let God, not human weakness, get the last word.

     My friends, the encounter with Jesus is ours, too.  And we needn’t even climb a tree to have it!  He comes to us wherever it is we are and he invites himself to our house - to dine with us – as he does now, and every time we celebrate the Eucharist!    

Father Michael G. Ryan




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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